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Judge Orders Ohio County to Cap Jail Population, Release Prisoners

A federal judge has decided the best way to solve the overcrowding problem at the Lucas County Jail in Toledo, Ohio is by simply enforcing the law.

On November 5, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge James Carr ordered county officials to reduce the jail’s population by 34 prisoners by the end of 2014, thus bringing the facility into compliance with a 1984 court order which requires the Lucas County sheriff to release prisoners charged with nonviolent misdemeanors when the population exceeds 90% of capacity.

“We’re now consistently at 120%,” said Aneel Chablani, an attorney with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE), who filed a motion on behalf of current jail prisoners.

Judge Carr ordered the jail to cap its population at 403 by November 20, 2014 and then reduce the number of prisoners to 369 by the end of the year.

“It’s a partial, interim, short-term, temporary response to the [ABLE] motion,” Carr told other judges, prosecutors, public defenders and county officials who had packed his courtroom.

Evy Jarrett, an assistant prosecutor for Lucas County, argued that ABLE’s motion had not provided evidence that the chronic overcrowding problem at the jail was violating prisoners’ constitutional rights. But that argument found no footing with the court.

“I think we’re past that,” Judge Carr stated. “There is an order of long standing that sets the maximum capacity [at the jail].”

If releasing prisoners charged with nonviolent misdemeanors does not achieve the results mandated by the 1984 court order, Chablani said releasing detainees charged with nonviolent felonies would be the next step.

“What the judge did today was make everybody get serious,” declared County Commissioner Pete Gerkin. “It hasn’t been that in a long, long time.”

Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said another option to keep the jail’s population under capacity in the future would be to not incarcerate people who aren’t a threat to the public in the first place.

Judge Carr also suggested to Toledo and Lucas County officials who were concerned about defendants failing to appear for court hearings that they should consider a telephone-call system to remind defendants when they have a court date. Not only could such a system reduce the number of people who fail to appear, but it would likely allow police to do real policing rather than arrest and book defendants on failure-to-appear warrants.

“There’s a better way of doing it,” Carr said. “Let’s figure it out and ultimately resources can be saved.”

The case remains ongoing, with oversight by a Special Master appointed by the federal district court. On February 2, 2015, the court modified its previous order, requiring the Lucas County jail to “take all steps necessary to maintain [the] inmate population at or below 403.” See: Jones v. Wittenberg, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 3:70-cv-00388-JGC.

Additional sources: Toledo Blade,

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Related legal case

Jones v. Wittenberg